For a program that has built its entire legacy on defying the odds and proving the pundits wrong, there’s still a bit of an identity crisis heading into the 2014-2015 season.
The 2013-14 Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team boasted the most exciting roster on paper in the history of VCU. After losing to Stephen F. Austin 75-77 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, few if any would say the team performed up to its potential.
The 2011 VCU Rams proved that HAVOC! is about the sum of its parts and not what’s on the paper. The 2012 Rams did the same–it’s easy to forget how much talent that team lost, replaced with unheralded players, and still battled to within one shot of the Sweet 16. After years of putting together teams, last season was a reminder that paper doesn’t mean anything on the basketball court.
The 2014-15 Rams boast a roster that paper isn’t even worthy of listing. But for a program that has built its entire legacy on defying the odds, on lighting the paper on fire, on proving the pundits wrong, there’s still a bit of an identity crisis.
“We have a lot to work on, but we have a lot to work with.”Coach Smart
Fortunately, Coach Smart seems to always be the voice of reason. That quote is from last season’s Black & Gold Scrimmage, but it rings true this season. It’s tough to not get excited about this year’s roster, but success will ultimately be dictated by VCU’s ability to put the pieces together while creating a team far greater than the sum of its parts.
While far from perfect in the half-court, the 2012-13 Rams were an offensive juggernaut both in efficiency and points per game. After the graduations of point guard Darius Theus and “human 9-0 run” Troy Daniels, and the disappearance of senior Juvonte Reddic, the Rams regressed from 21st nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency to 107th.
The ’14 Rams really missed the poise of Theus, the 3-point bombs of Daniels, and the 15-point automatic deposit from the all-enigma team Juvonte Reddic. This season, there are plenty of reasons to expect the Rams to progress back to being a top-50 offensive unit.
At the cost of some individual talent on defense, the Rams will field much stronger scoring lineups this season. Expect Briante Weber, JeQuan Lewis, and Jonathan Williams to relentlessly attack the paint where they will kick the ball to an improved group of shooters: Melvin Johnson, JeQuan Lewis, and Jordan Burgess.
Melvin Johnson and JeQuan Lewis should eat up most of Rob Brandenberg’s 26.6 MPG where they should be huge upgrades on offense. Both can create their own shots and both could shoot north of .400 from range this season. If Jordan Burgess sans knee brace with a year of figuring out how to live in his brother’s shadow can bring consistent shooting to his extremely mature game, then this could be the best perimeter offense at VCU since March 2011.
Bridging the gap between the perimeter and the front court is Treveon Graham. It’s tough to describe what he does in the VCU offense. One second he has two points, you blink, and suddenly he has 15 points. Improved team 3-point shooting could help him be even better. Spreading the floor means opponents will be forced to try to guard him one-on-one. Emphasis on the word try, because his strength and speed leaves only a handful of defenders in the country who can stop him from scoring double figures–which happened just three times last season (games that VCU won by an average of 21.7 points).
The post is where there are more question marks. VCU will have plenty of scoring talent down under, but can the guards feed the post better than they have since the graduation of Jamie Skeen?
What the Rams are sacrificing in total output in the post should be made up for by efficiency. Mo Alie-Cox isn’t going to get five post looks per game, but his ability to clean up the offensive glass and finish through contact should greatly expand offensive efficiency.
Mo Alie-Cox, Jarred Guest, and Justin Tillman have the tools to be some of the best offensive rebounders in the league while Mike Gilmore can step out and shoot incredibly well for his size. The pieces are all in place to build a monster, only time will tell if the Rams can come together and be successful in the full-court and half court this season.
The Rams are poised to be a defensive force again, but it’s tough to imagine another top-6 finish in adjusted defensive efficiency. Briante Weber will still be doing Briante Weber things, but Melvin Johnson and JeQuan Lewis likely won’t be able to immediately replicate Rob Brandenberg.
The changes on the perimeter will likely be mitigated by Mo Alie-Cox. The easiest way to tell which writers have actually watched VCU is by the way they address the center position. “VCU’s center is only 6-foot-6” is a sure sign to disregard the second half of that sentence. Alie-Cox runs and jumps like a guard but blocks and rebounds like a 7-footer. He probably won’t guard the 94-feet like Juvonte Reddic who finished top-10 in steals at VCU, but Alie-Cox has the potential to be the best shot blocker at VCU since that guy currently wearing a Miwaukee Bucks jersey named Larry Sanders.
The HAVOC! defense will be tested early and often by an elite non-conference slate, but come January it should be a force capable of dominating an off-year A-10.
The thing that stands out on this year’s roster is the physical flexibility. It’s not ridiculous to imagine a lineup of Williams, Lewis, Johnson, Graham, and Alie-Cox, and it’s not beyond belief to imagine Weber, Brooks, Larrier, Gilmore, and Simmons taking the court. That’s a remarkable difference in size and skill sets.
Unlike any Coach Smart-era team, the ’15 Rams will have a lineup for every occasion. Small ball with Treveon Graham at the the four will still be the flavor of the season, but the Rams will have a rotation of front court bruisers that can soften up the paint for the Rams’ relentless attack. Expect more points than ever before.
14 players 200 minutes
This team, even more so than any VCU team in the past, has the potential to play ten or eleven players deep. There are 13 Rams on scholarship but only five players can take the court at a time and only 200 minute are played per game. The depth is almost an issue. Elite high school recruits will ride the pine because the competition will be insane. Here are my projections for the rotations:
- Briante Weber
- Melvin Johnson
- Jordan Burgess
- Treveon Graham
- Mo Alie-Cox
(relatively in order of substitution)
- JeQuan Lewis
- Terry Larrier
- Antravious Simmons
- Justin Tillman
- Michael Gilmore
- Jarred Guest
— ∮∮∮ —
The potential of the 2014-15 Rams is greater than any VCU team in history–even the Final Four squad. Their ability to win Coach Smart’s first conference title and to get past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 will ultimately be dictated by their ability to come together at the right time. At the very least, they’ll be highly entertaining to watch.
Photos by: Will Weaver